Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

The last time I named and attempted to shame a company guilty of what I considered to be poor service, I was almost swept away in a torrent of righteous anger. On that occasion, three years ago, the object of all the excitement was a side of smoked wild salmon, supposed to be delivered in time for Christmas Day, and I won't go into the whole sorry business again, except to say that I wrote about it and a sub- editor gave my article the melodramatic headline "How a missing salmon ruined my Christmas", which it hadn't. "Diddums" was the gist of many of the e-mails.

I found out later that the offending article, complete with offending headline, had been posted on the website of the homeless persons' charity Shelter, which explained why the e-mails continued for weeks, some of them almost hysterical in their fury.

All of which might serve to explain why my hands now hover nervously above my keyboard. For I am about to name and shame again, outraged once more by rubbish customer service. This time, however, my target is not an overstretched, family-run mail-order business but the electrical goods giant Comet, so I don't think anyone can accuse me of bullying. Just for the record, though, I should add that the saga of our missing washing machine did not ruin my week, day or even my morning. I am aware that there are worse conditions in life than being Siemens-less. But here goes anyway...

A rattle was where it all began. A death rattle, as it turned out. Our faithful washing machine was no longer able to deal with a family of five, so Jane went into Comet in Hereford and bought a spanking new model. The only one they had in stock was the one that was on the shop floor, but at least that meant we would get a 10 per cent discount. For delivery and installation she paid an extra £35. For that, they would also take our clapped-out machine away. It seemed like money well spent. The only problem was that a delivery date couldn't be fixed because, that dreaded 21st-century euphemism for crap service, the "system was down". Jane was assured that someone would phone her.

Nobody did phone, of course, so she phoned them. Not the store itself - don't be silly - but a corporate call centre. After dialling 2 to deal with problems to do with the Comet delivery service, as opposed to 1 to place an order, 3 to listen to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, or 4 to bring up more options including the option to have a nervous breakdown, she was told, rather curiously, to "restez en ligne". Eventually she did get through to an English-speaking human being and delivery of the machine was arranged for the following Sunday, six days hence. All of this for a washing machine which had actually been in the shop when she bought it. Apparently, deliveries take six days for the depot to "process".

That week, Jane took several loads of washing to the launderette in Leominster, five miles away. The following Sunday morning, having stayed in deliberately to take delivery of the wretched machine, we got a phone call from Comet to say that it wouldn't be coming after all because it was out of stock. "But it was actually in the shop, and it's paid for, so how can it be out of stock?" I asked. The person at the end of the line - sorry, the ligne - didn't know. A new delivery date was arranged for the following Sunday. Jane told the man in the launderette, who had by now become a family friend, that she wouldn't be seeing him again. "I think you will," he said. He was right. The machine didn't come the following Sunday either; something about more computer glitches. The man in the launderette, or Uncle Jim as my children now call him, must love Comet. Our washing has paid for him to have a short holiday in Brittany.

Still, the manager of the Hereford branch of Comet redeemed himself, if not his company, by eventually paying a courier to deliver the machine to us. It finally arrived just under three weeks after Jane had first clapped eyes on it. Naturally, the courier couldn't plumb it in or take away the old one, so the £35 was generously refunded. So there it is, a modern utility tale.